A fellow pastor made a blanket statement recently, “Optimism is mandatory.” It is one of those statements that I could immediately intuit what he was getting at. He flipped it around and said “you are not authorized to despair” which I found completely without problem. Because when I think about despair it’s opposite is hope. And as a Christian we have hope. What I balked at was the equation of Hope and Optimism. Now I hear you already. There you go pastor, splitting hairs that can’t be split. But at least some part of the preacher gig is based upon words. Upon having an understanding about the shade of meaning words have and how they are used. And to my ears Hope and Optimism had different domains of use.
Optimism to me is based in the gut or in our feelings. At its most pagan it is simply the feeling that fortune favors me right now. It could come from a feeling of karma. “I deserve something good.” It is Norman Vicent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” And honestly I don’t want to be too negative on some of these. A positive outlook on life is an endearing American trait. Even if you just call it the Dunning-Kruger effect – irrational confidence – it often works. Fake it until you make it is good advice. Nobody likes hanging around Eeyore. But ultimately Optimism is based only on ourselves. It is the advice of Self-Help. If I only follow this seven-step plan everything will be perfect. And the problem with self help stated as boldly as “Optimism is mandatory” is that it makes it a law. And we can’t keep the law. We do not have a promise from God that everything in this world is going to be peachy. For lots of people commanding optimism would be like the drowning hand meme. Sometimes self-help works, but many times down you go.
Contrary to Optimism which is not based on anything solid, Hope is based on the promises of God and His self-revelation. And the Christian Hope is as the creed defines it, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This Hope is solid because Jesus is risen. We have already seen the first fruits. We have also been given the Holy Spirit, the deposit of that World to Come. God is not saying to us, “get up” while we are laying dead. God himself shall raise us. Likewise God is not demanding that we build the Kingdom under our own effort. He has already made the Kingdom. We only wait for its full appearance. The entire creation groans waiting for the revelation. When Jesus compares building on the sand and building on the rock, to me this is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the sand. You can build on it for a while, but eventually the water rises higher and the building goes down. Hope is the rock. Even when the water comes up, it is Jesus who can command the wind and the waves to be silent. The prophet can part the sea. We have been provided an ark.
We absolutely need to be told to have Hope. And if we think God isn’t living up to his promises, take it to Him. He might come back at us in a whirlwind. We may be talking words without understanding. But this is also the God who promises “a bruised reed he will not break.” And it is exactly that testing of hope that builds it up. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Rom. 5:3-4)” It does this because the rock like nature of the promises of God are made real in our lives. We have not been abandoned, neither is it all on us. I balked at optimism, because it comes up short. The Christian has hope.